Republican Congressional leaders are facing a stressful September, burdened with a best-case outcome of maintaining the status quo in government funding and a worst-case outcome of another government shutdown.
Adding to their headaches, a flurry of Democratic senators pledged late last week to support the Iran deal, eliminating the possibility that Congress could override a presidential veto of a resolution disapproving of the multinational deal.
And as dissatisfaction with their leadership peaks on the right, it remains unclear what consequences could arise for top Republicans in they fail to deliver on sought-after conservative demands, particularly stripping Planned Parenthood of roughly $500 million in annual federal funding.
Although the House will likely pass the Iran resolution this week, the chamber is unlikely to reach a veto-proof two-thirds majority, and 38 senators have so far committed to supporting the deal, putting advocates just three votes shy of preventing a vote on the deal from coming to the floor in the upper chamber at all.
Still, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised a lengthy floor debate beginning next week, in which members of the Senate will be required to hold their seats on the floor while colleagues debate a bill whose fate appears to be decided already. The deadline for opponents to pass a resolution disapproving of the deal is Sept. 17.
Meanwhile, the fight over Planned Parenthood was delayed by the August recess, but is likely to come to a head again as Congress debates how to prevent a shutdown on Oct. 1, when the government’s funding expires. Neither chamber has a funding plan in place (though a short-term continuing resolution appears likely) and conservative leaders are still seething over undercover videos that allege that the organization illegally sold fetal tissue, allegations the group vigorously denies.
Senate leaders remain highly skeptical of plans to couple the two issues, particularly after a bill to defund Planned Parenthood failed to pass the upper chamber just before members broke for the August recess. Leaders have pledged repeatedly to keep the government’s doors open at the end of September, regardless of conservative plans to hold funding hostage to a Planned Parenthood vote. "I'm not for going in any box canyons,” Majority Whip John Cornyn said just before the August recess. “We tried that before [and] that didn't work very well."
McConnell went a step further in an interview with Kentucky television station WYMT last week, arguing that the issue will have to wait until after the 2016 election. “The president’s made it very clear he’s not going to sign any bill that includes defunding of Planned Parenthood, so that’s another issue that awaits a new president, hopefully with a different point of view about Planned Parenthood,” McConnell said.
Yet that is not stopping hardline conservatives such as presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Jim Jordan, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, from insisting that leadership include such language in a spending bill that must be passed by the end of September.
Cruz has worked to rally the religious right to help put pressure on McConnell and other Republican leaders to end funding for the organization, inviting 100,000 religious leaders to join him on a conference call at the end of August to formulate a plan of attack. In an op-ed in USA Today a few days earlier, Cruz wrote: “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should not schedule or facilitate the consideration of any legislation that gives federal money to Planned Parenthood,” presumably including a continuing resolution.
Whether Cruz will rally his troops to the point of a government shutdown, as he did two years ago over funding for Obama’s health care law, remains to be seen. But Jordan said the videos and national publicity on the issue from presidential contenders will help put pressure on Democrats beyond the recent shutdown.
“Frankly I was disappointed in what we heard from the majority leader,” Jordan said in an interview. “If we fully engage in this debate we can win this debate. … I think this a whole different framework. We’ve got this amazing phenomenon happening with the presidential campaign. We’ve got videotape. It’s a different framework today than it was in any other appropriations process.”
Still, Republican leaders are not ignoring the issue entirely. McConnell and Cornyn have emphasized repeatedly that their committee chairmen, including Sens. Chuck Grassley and Ron Johnson, are conducting investigations into the matter. In the House, leaders have pledged a vote on the issue, perhaps in the form of a bill from Rep. Diane Black that strips the funding but is not tied to the appropriations process.
But more may be at stake, particularly for House leadership, this time around. Before the recess, Rep. Mark Meadows offered a resolution to strip Speaker John Boehner of his title and force a vote for another speaker. His stated grievances included that Boehner governed by crisis and has not been inclusive of conservative viewpoints. It was set aside for the time being, but if members are jilted by the fall’s agenda, he or someone else could bring the resolution in a privileged way, meaning it would force a vote to dispose of Boehner.
Meadows, for his part, said in an interview that he is “certainly not foreclosing the possibility, if things do not change, that the motion could be brought up in a privileged way.” Though actually ditching Boehner would be a long shot, the ordeal would be embarrassing and time consuming for leaders.
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Daniel Newhauser is a staff correspondent for National Journal, where he primarily covers the House of Representatives. He was formerly a House leadership reporter for Roll Call, where he started as an intern in 2010 and quickly earned a slot as a beat reporter.
A native of San Antonio, Texas, Newhauser traveled further West to study journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and write for newspapers including the East Valley Tribune and the Green Valley News & Sun.